Write It Sideways

Can You Really Call Yourself ‘A Writer’?

Today’s post is written by Sarah Callender, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Sarah!

I don’t know about you, but for a long time, whenever a well-intentioned someone asked what I did professionally, I instantly became a mammering, mealy-mouthed mugwump. It just felt so audacious, not to mention goofy, to utter the sentence, “I’m a writer!’

After all, a doctor isn’t allowed to call himself A Doctor unless he’s graduated from med school.

My dear friend, Schmidtie, isn’t A Therapist simply because she listens to me with the perfect balance of tough love and compassion.

My husband isn’t A Master Gardener because he grew some pretty fantastic tomatoes this summer (plus a few naughty-looking carrots).

So it seemed a little high-falutin’ to call myself A Writer, maybe mostly because I am, as of October 2011, still unpublished. And really, can’t anyone write and not get published? Isn’t that what most humans do? Write stuff that never gets published?

To make matters worse, along came Bill Williams.

The Case of the Overconfident Writer

A bunch of years ago, Bill Williams (that’s a fake name), a friend from high school (that’s a fake relationship), announced he was leaving his job as a so-and-so in the such-and-such industry. Instead, he proclaimed, he was going to write screenplays.


Well. I know you don’t know my fake friend, but Bill Williams is devastatingly handsome (that’s true). Plus he has always been about a billion times more athletic than scholarly (again, true).

If Bill Williams had announced he had quit his job to pursue underwear modeling or professional snowboarding? Sure. Rock on, Bill Williams. But writing?

The real kicker was this: Bill Williams acted like writing a screenplay was as easy as getting a date on a Saturday night.

[A brief note: if you, too, happen to be devastatingly handsome, please don’t act like everything is easy. Certainly don’t act like writing screenplays is easy, especially when your only screenplay experienceî occurs while you are at the movies with a devastatingly gorgeous date.]

Bill Williams simply had too much confidence, and because observing writerly over-confidence is both irritating and threatening, I admit I might have done unkind things. Perhaps rolled my eyes. Maybe even thought a few unkind thoughts.

And, because I—not typically one to roll her eyes at the dreams of another—had rolled eyes at Bill Williams’s dream, I became even less willing to share my own dreams of writing a novel. I would not give anyone a chance to roll his or her eyes the moment I turned my back.

Worse, I began to wonder what the heck I was doing, thinking I could write a novel. All I had on my side was my love of reading, my background as an English teacher, and my stupid, stubborn drive to get up each day and write pages and pages of drivel.

Me? A Writer? Ha! Hahahahahahaha! Ha.

The Case of the Underconfident Writer

Until one day it hit me. My under-confidence was far more damaging to my own work, to my own creativity, than Bill Williams’s over-confidence was to his dreams. That realization led to this realization: that I, that all of us bashful writers, should take a page from Bill Williams’s Confidence Bible.

A page. Only one.

Just the page that says this: We writers need to see ourselves as writers so that others will see us as writers.

But (and this is the Big But that Bill Williams ignored), we writers need to do the very, very hard work that will give us the knowledge, the certainty, that even if we are still unpublished, even if agents aren’t wooing us, even if we’ve submitted to seventeen thousand contests and publications yet have no acceptances or prizes, we are writers because we put our tush in the chair and get words on the page every day.

We can feel good about declaring, “I am A Writer” because we are not scared of very hard work.

Making the Most of Our Writerly Accomplishments

Well. I’ve never once in my life been devastatingly gorgeous; therefore, I have never assumed that anything should come easy. Plus, I wasn’t scared of a little very hard work.

So, I started believing that my years of attending writing conferences and pitching to agents, long before my novel was complete, meant something.

That getting up every morning to write for two hours before my kids awoke meant something.

That writing, even when getting words on the page felt like standing in front of one of those insensitive automatic faucets at the airport, (the one where you wave your hands like crazy in front of the sensor and not a drop of water comes out) meant something.

That starting a blog, and applying for writers’ grants, and getting accepted in a professional development program for writers, and attending the readings of other writers, and getting an amazing agent who wants to represent my novel, all that meant something.

Quite a lot, in fact.

I stopped worrying (mostly) that when I told people I was a writer, they would roll their eyes the moment I turned my back.

Even better, when other Bill-Williams-types come along and tell me they are going to be writers, even when they don’t appear to have done any work at all, I don’t roll my eyes or think mean thoughts. I am no longer threatened (OK, I’m still a little threatened) by writers who exude over-confidence.

But mostly I believe that they will learn, just as I have learned, that…

…it’s the work that brings the confidence; the confidence does not bring the success.

It is the dedication and faith and the willingness to learn from others and then to go practice your pants off that makes a writer.

Your Turn

In what ways have you, dear writers, earned your title of Writer? How do you maintain your confidence in an industry where rejection and challenge lurk around every corner?

I’d love to steal a page from your confidence bibles, too . . . just in case I stumble into one of those days where my confidence feels no larger than the dot of an ‘i’.

Sarah Callender is represented by Rebecca Oliver at William Morris Endeavor, and her novel is currently undergoing a round of revisions. She received a 2010 King County Arts Commission grant for an interdisciplinary art/poetry project in the Seattle Public Schools, and the first chapter of her novel, BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES, received Honorable Mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Sarah blogs regularly at Inside-Out Underpants. She lives with her husband and two children in Seattle where she is hard at work on her second novel.